From V.K. Pandian to Taranjit Singh Sandhu, meet bureaucrats who took the political plunge

They are among many former civil servants cutting their teeth in politics

28-Sasikanth-Senthil-and-Taranjit-Singh-Sandhu-Pandian From left- Sasikanth Senthil and Taranjit Singh Sandhu and V.K. Pandian | Bhanu Prakash Chandra, Kritajna Naik., Sanjay Ahlawat

Taranjit Singh Sandhu comes from an illustrious lineage. His grandfather Teja Singh Samundri was a prominent figure in the gurdwara reform movement, and his father, Bishan Singh, was an eminent educationist from Amritsar. A Stephanian, Sandhu spent 36 years as a career diplomat, the last four as the US ambassador. He is now contesting from Amritsar on a BJP ticket.

Unlike Arun Jaitley and Hardeep Puri, who lost the 2014 and 2019 polls from Amritsar despite the Modi wave, apparently owing to their “outsider” tag, Sandhu ticks all the boxes. He leverages his family’s past, his Jat Sikh caste and Punjab’s Majha accent to present himself as a son of the soil.

“When I joined the services, I didn’t have any plans to join politics,” said Sandhu. “I was inspired and encouraged to join after my retirement. I have worked 10 years with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. My focus is very clear: the situation in Amritsar is grave. Somebody needs to be a good bridge for the Centre’s schemes to come to Amritsar and attract global investments.”

Sandhu is among many former civil servants cutting their teeth in politics. While he completed his tenure before joining the BJP, many others this season have left the services midway to prepare for this challenging role.

Take, for instance, former IAS officer Parampal Kaur Sidhu, who resigned just days ahead of being given a BJP ticket from Bathinda. She is pitted against sitting MP and Akali Dal leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal.

Former IPS officer K. Annamalai left the services in 2019. This Lok Sabha polls, he contested from Coimbatore on a BJP ticket. As BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit chief, he helped the saffron party gain a foothold in the Dravidian terrain.

While Modi’s leadership inspired Annamalai, fellow Tamilian Sasikanth Senthil left the civil services, citing the “majoritarian” policies of the government, to take on a political role. He was part of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests and other movements. He later joined the Congress and managed its war room in Delhi till he was asked to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Tiruvallur, his native place. He was chairman of the party’s Karnataka war room and was instrumental in setting up war rooms in Rajasthan and Telangana during the assembly polls in 2023. “I managed 10 elections from the other side (as a civil servant) and five from this side. It has been a rewarding experience,”said Senthil.

Another notable figure is Tamilian IAS officer V.K. Pandian of the Odisha cadre, who helmed Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s campaign during the simultaneous assembly and Lok Sabha polls in the state. Despite the opposition targeting his Tamil roots, Pandian―with his two decades experience as a civil servant in Odisha, including 12 years with Patnaik―has earned his stripes. Well-versed in Odia and married to an Odia IAS officer, Pandian aims to seamlessly transition into his new role.

He is not the only babu-turned-neta in Odisha. Sitting MP and former IAS officer Aparajita Sarangi is seeking another term from Bhubaneswar on a BJP ticket. While she hails from Bihar, she is married to an IAS officer from Odisha and prides herself as the daughter-in-law of the state. In Puri, the BJD has fielded former Mumbai Police commissioner Arup Patnaik, who had lost to Sarangi in 2019.

Former Assam-cadre IPS officer Anand Mishra, known for his work in anti-insurgency and anti-mafia operations, quit the services to do “public service” and hoped to contest on a BJP ticket. When that did not materialise, he jumped into the fray as an independent candidate from Bihar’s Buxar. The seat, earlier held by minister of state Ashwini Choubey, was given to Mithilesh Tiwari by the BJP. With Mishra and Tiwari both being Brahmins, it will be a tough fight.

Another independent candidate is Maithili Sharan Gupt, who retired as special director general of Madhya Pradesh police. She contested from Bhopal with a promise to ensure a crime-free India, where FIRs will be registered online, chargesheets in 15 days, and justice delivered in 30 days.

In Bengal, the Trinamool Congress has fielded former IPS officer Prasun Banerjee from the Malda North seat. Banerjee wears several hats, including that of an actor and writer.

In Karnataka, meanwhile, the Congress has fielded former IAS officer G. Kumar Naik from Raichur, the district he served as a deputy commissioner.

Uttar Pradesh is another favourite hunting ground for bureaucrats. In the last assembly polls, two former IPS officers, Rajeshwar Singh and Asim Arun, were elected, and the latter is a minister in Yogi Adityanath’s cabinet. This Lok Sabha polls, the BJP has fielded Saket Mishra, who could have been an IPS officer but became an investment banker, from Shrawasti. Saket is the son of Nripendra Mishra, former principal secretary to Modi and the chairman of the Ram Temple construction committee. Saket was earlier nominated to the upper house in the state.

So what lures these bureaucrats to politics? “In services, we are bound by the service rules and cannot be political,” said Senthil. “I feel the country is going through an ideological battle, and people who understand it need to raise their voice if something is not right, hence the political plunge by some.” Pandian argued that politics gave him much more freedom to reach out to people.

However, shouldn’t there be a cooling-off period before bureaucrats take up political assignments?

“There is no law against civil servants contesting elections and joining politics,” said former Union secretary Anil Swarup, who has penned books like Encounters with Politicians and Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant. “The tragedy is that some of them do so even before quitting the services and become political. It would be ideal if there was a cooling-off period.”

Senthil disagreed, saying that everyone has the right to join politics and do public service in a democracy. “If there is quid pro quo, then it is problematic,” he said. “Do you stop any other professional from doing public service? Is there a waiting period for a doctor or a lawyer?”

Agreed Sandhu and Pandian. “Whoever has commitment and values to contribute to society in a democratic process, either through bureaucratic processes, politics, NGOs, or social services, should be free to do so,” said Pandian.

But do bureaucrats make better politicians or ministers?

Senthil said he has much more respect for politicians who have risen through the ranks. “They are much more grounded,”he said. “They are way more intelligent and knowledgeable. We may have some edge in understanding theory, but that’s about it. It then boils down to individuals.”